Clinical Law Prof Blog

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Pepperdine University
School of Law

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Monday, June 16, 2014

What Not to Wear?

Last week an extensive discussion transpired in the cyberspace inhabited by the Women in the Profession (WIP) Commission of the Pennsylvania Bar Association's email list. A diverse set of female attorneys, including some on the bench, voiced their perspectives on attire for women attorneys, particularly in the courtroom, and its link to gender bias.

I reviewed the conversation with fascination as it wended its way through a wide variety of anecdotes and opinions.  The topics ranged from personal experiences of blatant discrimination by male judges based on attire to sighs of exasperation that the group was unnecessarily perpetuating the topic.

Most striking to me was a comment by a successful attorney and writer supporting a meaningful examination of the problem and a set of solutions, by the WIP Commission itself, because law schools don't teach lawyers how to deal with this issue.  Ahem, pardon?

From my perspective of course, the remark was potentially feather-ruffling, because like many reading this blog I actually am a law school teacher addressing this issue, and other professionalism issues, with my students.  Yet as I paused to breathe (thank you, yoga) and consider the source, whom I respect greatly, I realized that for many practicing lawyers and judges, law school in fact did not teach them how to deal with this issue.

As clinical law professors we sometimes task ourselves with trying to teach too much, in my opinion.  We can cram research skills, oral advocacy, legal theory, negotiation, client-centered counseling, social justice, contract drafting, and more into one semester. Is lawyerly attire even worthy of our valuable teaching time?  The tone of some commenters on the email list comes to mind--a sort of "are we seriously talking about What Not to Wear?" sentiment.

I submit that not only are we talking about it, but that it is a critical component of professionalism.  Additionally, it is in some part a moving target due to women's ever-increasing presence in the workplace generally, and more specifically a legal profession that is redefining itself at astonishing speed.

How do I teach "attire"? Professionalism is a large component of my pedagogy --watch this space for my upcoming article on self-aware professionalism--and the issue of attire is a component of professionalism.  I have repeatedly used the phrase "the issue of" attire here because that is the pedagogical question--what bearing does attire have on legal practice, not "which outfit should I choose?" 

In my teaching, the issue of female attorney attire arises in many ways.  I specify to clinic students when we prep for a courthouse tour early in the semester that they should wear business casual attire.  Discussion ensues about what that means--for male students it is simple, and for females it is achingly complex.  Even more complex are gender issues that arise related to student professional behavior concerning attire, occasionally even in their interoffice dialogue.   I model appropriate attire. I ask them for examples.  And I explain my "suits for court" expectation.  Is a pantsuit a suit? In my opinion, of course. Yet as female students, some are terrified to even ask that question. Yet the email list discussion last week included several anecdotes about women lawyers being reprimanded or even prejudiced by male judges for wearing pants to court.  We work in a profession that demands attention to detail.  Our professional behavior impacts clients' liberties, their parenting status, and sometimes their very lives.  Justice is at stake, thus everything we say or do matters.

We are not teaching fashion.  We are teaching professionalism.

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